Blissfully Ignorant of Investment Banking
A couple weeks ago, I wrote an op-ed in my college paper, The Harvard Crimson, titled “Boycott Wall Street,” advocating that undergraduate jobseekers avoid the financial sector and look for more interesting and/or public spirited work. The piece is written in the same vein as my earlier post and the sign I held at an OWS rally that read “Wall Street Made My College Classmates Boring.” It made a (very minor) splash, quoted on the New York Times blog along with a similar piece that came out in Stanford’s college paper the same day, and earlier op-eds at other elite schools, including Dartmouth and Yale. A little more digging reveals similar stuff from Cornell and MIT.
I have written about this issue before. But thinking about all this stuff more made me realize how naive I was when I entered college. Maybe blissfully ignorant is a better term. When began my freshman year at Harvard in 2001, I had a solid grounding in European history. I had analyzed great novels, plays, and poems. I could tell you about Biblical source criticism, and Cartesian philosophy and the difference between Kantian and utilitarian ethics. Further back in high school, I could even do math and science at a reasonably high level.
But I did not know what an investment bank was. I didn’t know that was a thing, a profession someone could have, an investment banker. The words “hedge fund” meant nothing to me. And I certainly didn’t know what a consultant was, because I hadn’t seen Office Space yet.
I did know very basic economics, about supply and demand. I knew that there were safe investments in some stocks and riskier ones in others. But to me, banks were, well, banks. They were boring. They were places where you saved and stored your money, maybe watched it collect a little interest. And being a banker seemed like an incredibly boring job. As I understood it, smart, high-achievers went into scientific research, engineering, medicine, academia, law, journalism, activism, or the arts. Maybe they became business people, who made stuff that people wanted, employed lots of workers with a creative new idea or product. But they certainly didn’t become bankers. Anyone could do that job.
Well I guess I was wrong. Lots of smart people became, and become, investment bankers. People who, like me, didn’t know that was a thing, didn’t know what they wanted to do. Unlike me, they drifted into finance and consulting because it seemed like the thing to do, the best option available, what recruiters sold the hardest. I still think that’s a shame. I still think that the financial meltdown happened, to quote Calvin Trillin, “because smart guys had started working on Wall Street.” I want smart people to stay away from jobs on Wall Street, or better yet, to regulate those jobs to prevent another collapse.
I still don’t really know what investment banking is (though I suspect some investment bankers could say the same thing). I know regulated investment banks are crucial to our modern economy, and can do lot of good things. And I know enough to know that unregulated, left to run amuck, they have done a lot of damage. Sometimes I just wish I could return to the blissful ignorance of my youth, when banks were just boring and not harmful.